Akeem Smith’s Trip Through Cultural Memory Makes “No Gyal Can Test” Must-See Viewing

The artist Akeem Smith has landed his solo debut exhibition at Red Bull Arts in Eastern Market. The celebration of the women who make up Kingston, Jamaica’s dancehall scene is now on display through July 30.

Walking into Akeem Smith’s solo debut exhibition is an overwhelming, audio-visual head trip.

And that’s a good thing.

It’s called “No Gyal Can Test.” It’s on display at Red Bull Arts in Eastern Market now through July 30. The exhibit is free and open to the public, but reservations are required.

The exhibition is complemented by an off-site installation at the former Woods Cathedral on Detroit’s west side. Reservations are required.

Listen: Go inside Akeem Smith’s exhibition and hear the sounds of Kingston’s dancehall culture.

Dario Lasagni
Dario Lasagni

While artist statements at contemporary art galleries tend to be dense, Smith sums up his multimedia blitz of the show quite swiftly: “‘No Gyal Can Test’ excavates the personal photographs and videos entrusted to [Smith] over the past decade by family members, friends and prominent figures at the heart of Kingston, Jamaica’s dancehall community.”

Through immersive salvaged architectural installations (a nod to Smith’s love for urban planning and design) and a wealth of edited video and photographs, Smith has brought the city one of the most exciting and refreshing shows it will likely see this year. Both major features of the exhibit — the massive, three-screen video installation “Social Cohesiveness” and the basement gallery that feels like walking through Kingston in a vivid dream — are must-see viewing thanks to Smith’s daft exploration of memory, history and cultural archiving.

“I was born in Brooklyn and I was in Jamaica. I’m what you would call an anchor baby,” says Smith. When the 30-year-old artist was a teenager, he started collecting everything, following an intuition to preserve a sense of place that was disappearing.

“Being raised in Jamaica and having family that’s part of a dancehall culture has really shaped my taste and what I was into sonically and visually,” Smith says, who collected “images, photos and things of that era — ’80s and early ’90s.”

Dario Lasagni
Dario Lasagni

The idea of a makeshift Jamaican dancehall party landing in Detroit is only part of the story. That’s just the flashing neon sign that Smith throws up to get you to walk in.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya / courtesy of artist and Red Bull Arts
Paul Mpagi Sepuya / courtesy of artist and Red Bull Arts

“I use dancehall as the bait to get people interested because it’s a word that they know — it’s something they may have a clue of. But when you get to the show, it’s a lot more cynical,” says Smith.

Smith says the relationship between native Jamaicans and the dancehall culture is more complicated than it appears, but it is part of the cultural currency of what makes the country attractive to global tourists — similar to how Detroit’s Motown legacy brings tourists to the city.

“They wouldn’t want dancehall to be their moniker,” says Smith. “It’s the perfect example of how something with a negative connotation could transcend and be the representation of a country or a place or a culture. It’s an example of how a really small population of people could have a sonic and visual effect on the world.”

Akeem Smith’s “No Gyal Can Test” is now on display through July 30 at Red Bull Arts at 1551 Winder St. in Eastern Market. The exhibition is free and open to the public, but reservations are required in advance to attend.

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  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.